Cool weather and rain are helping fight the fire threatening Fort McMurray

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Cooler temperatures and calmer winds have helped contain the wildfire in Fort McMurray, a relief for firefighters preparing for a prolonged battle against the flames.

Four neighborhoods on the southwestern edge of the oil sands center remain evacuated as the fire continues to burn just a few kilometers from the community.

The order to disperse came Tuesday as the fire nearly doubled in size and forced 6,600 people from their homes.

The fire continues to burn out of control and now covers nearly 21,000 acres of forest along the south side of the Athabasca River valley, less than four miles from the edge of the community.

Officials said the weather will determine how the fire spreads and when it is safe to return.

Municipal and emergency officials will provide an update on the wildfire and efforts to protect the evacuation zone during a press conference today at 10 a.m. MT.

Jody Butz, regional fire chief, Josee St-Onge, public information officer for Alberta Wildfire, and Sandy Bowman, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, will speak at Thursday’s press conference.

The weather forecast for Thursday calls for afternoon highs of 11°C and up to 20 millimeters of rain before nightfall.

“I woke up to what seemed like really favorable conditions,” Fort McMurray firefighter Mark Stephenson said in an interview Thursday morning.

“It’s raining. The ground is wet. And it’s cooler today.”

“I hope for a good day for Fort McMurray.”

The fire threatening Fort McMurray is now 3.5 miles (5.5 km) from the city landfill on the edge of the core and less than three miles (5 km) from the intersection of Highway 63 and Highway 881, the only roads leading south.

A smaller fire was discovered three kilometers north of Fort McMurray on Wednesday. As of Thursday morning, the area was less than an acre in size and did not pose a threat to the community.

The neighborhoods of Prairie Creek, Beacon Hill, Abasand and Grayling Terrace make up the evacuation zone where firefighters are now deployed.

An evacuation warning remains in effect for the rest of the city and many surrounding communities, with residents urged to prepare to leave immediately at any time.

In the most at-risk areas, crews are clearing any debris that could cause sparks and dousing homes and businesses with fire retardant. Part of the effort includes cannon-equipped water bubblers that can shoot enough water into fire-prone trenches every 90 minutes to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

“The system was developed after 2016,” said Derek Sommerville, wildfire specialist with Alberta-based Fire and Flood Emergency Services.

“We can travel long distances. This frees up traditional mobile resources such as fire trucks and helicopters to address higher priority areas.”

The six-kilometer-long hoses, powered by a battery of 600-horsepower pumps, are an example of how Alberta appears to be better prepared for such threats than it was eight years ago.

“With the communications that have come out, they are definitely a little more prepared,” said David Warwick, a resident of one of the evacuated neighborhoods.

The wildfire threatening Fort McMurray spread quickly Monday, fueled by shifting winds. The wildfire threatening Fort McMurray spread quickly Monday, fueled by shifting winds.

The wildfire threatening Fort McMurray spread quickly Monday, fueled by shifting winds.

The wildfire threatening Fort McMurray spread quickly Monday, fueled by shifting winds. (Alberta wildfire)

This is the second time Fort McMurray, a city of 68,000, has been forced to flee the flames. In 2016, more than 2,000 houses were destroyed and 80,000 people were displaced from the city and surrounding areas.

Mark Stephenson, a firefighter in Fort McMurray for many years, watched his own house burn in 2016. As his wife and children were rushed to safety this week, he stayed behind to battle the flames again.

After the fire in 2016, he recovered a few small belongings from the rubble of his house, including his son’s piggy bank. His son took the memento with him when he left Fort McMurray with his mother on Tuesday.

Stephenson said knowing his family was safe helped him focus on the task ahead. In his opinion, the crews are better prepared for this time.

The strength and expertise of the emergency response has increased, while the strength of this fire pales in comparison, he said.

“I hope none of our neighborhoods are touched.”

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